CommonGround Golf Course's Savage receives GCSAA's Excellence in Government Affairs Award

Mitch Savage, CGCS, is an advocate for golf's success at the course and on the hill.


Mitch Savage at the CommonGround Golf Course shop
Mitch Savage, CGCS, is the recipient of the 2024 GCSAA Excellence in Government Affairs Award. Savage works at CommonGround Golf Course in Aurora, Colo. Photo by EJ Carr

The North Branch Area High School Vikings basketball team knew before all of us that Mitch Savage, CGCS, has some serious game.

In a town of roughly 10,000 people that hugs the eastern edge of central Minnesota along Interstate 35, Savage was a senior on the Vikings’ hoops squad. He certainly showed his stuff on the court and even as a youth working at the local nine-hole course. By season’s end his senior season, Savage was honored in ways that have become perfectly clear to GCSAA that he’s a player.

Savage received the team’s Coach’s Award that is presented to a player on the team who the coaches determined to be the most “coachable.” In other words, he was willing to listen, implement what coaches taught and do what was needed for the team.

“To be recognized with that award reiterated to me at a young age the importance of being a sponge and listening and learning from those who have something they can teach you and make you better in whatever it is you are doing in life,” Savage says. “It is a lesson that I constantly try to share with my 10-year-old son as he begins playing sports, and it is something I look for and try to instill in staff members on our team at the golf course.”

That basketball honor wasn’t his one and only award. Earlier this year, Savage was named recipient of GCSAA’s Excellence in Government Affairs Award in 2024.

Savage — a 21-year GCSAA member — is being honored for his proactive approach in advocating for state control of pesticide regulations and for his influential voice to state lawmakers in the Colorado golf industry, working in step with the Colorado Golf Coalition, Colorado PGA and Rocky Mountain Golf Course Superintendents Association chapter of GCSAA.

Savage, who oversees CommonGround Golf Course in Aurora, Colo., as its director of agronomy, in 2019 received GCSAA’s Grassroots Ambassador Leadership Award and has been paired with Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) as part of the Grassroots Ambassador program. He is known for being on top of things. This award, though, was a stunner — and his reaction to it was so him.

“I was surprised, mostly because when I first got the call (that he was selected), I honestly thought the Colorado Golf Coalition got the award, because the past two years I nominated them. Little did I know some of my fellow Colorado superintendents were co-conspiring (nominating him) behind my back,” says Savage, the first member of the RMGCSA to receive the GCSAA Excellence in Government Affairs Award since Joe McCleary from Saddle Rock Golf Course in Aurora earned the honor in compliance in 2002-03. “As honored as I was, it was like, dang it, that’s not how it was supposed to be. I take pride in being a team player. It (the award) might have my name on it, but it’s a team award and that’s how it will always be viewed.”

Mitch Savage and grassroots ambassadors at the Colorado State Capitol building
Savage, far right, with, from left, Jeff Wichman, Steve Sarro, Kevin Kallas, Sen. Don Coram and Paul Sibley at the Colorado State Capitol for a Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee hearing. Photo courtesy of Mitch Savage

On the move

Once Brian Horgan, Ph.D., suggested that Savage spread his wings, Savage soared.

While he was a student at the University of Minnesota, Horgan (now at Michigan State University) provided food for thought to Savage, who had gotten a taste of the industry while working on that nine-hole golf course in North Branch. “I enjoyed getting up early, on a dewy golf course. There was something about working the land and preparing the golf course,” Savage says.

Savage listened to Horgan. Goodbye, Minnesota. Savage secured an internship at Aspen Glen Club in Carbondale, Colo. Except for a brief time living farther west, Savage settled in Colorado. A significant portion of it was at Cherry Hills Country Club in Cherry Hills Village. The timing was good: Savage was a summer intern there during the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open. The opportunity led to a full-time job at the club. Savage also went on to work at Denver Country Club and Green Valley Ranch Golf Club in Denver before landing his first superintendent job at Broken Tee Golf Course in Englewood.

By that time, Savage was giving of his time to government affairs. “When I was an assistant superintendent, I realized that getting involved with my local chapter and serving on  committees and doing what I could to get more involved outside the day-to-day grind working on the golf course was something worthwhile,” says Savage, whose brother, Marty, is a 13-year GCSAA Class A superintendent at Heritage Eagle Bend Golf Club in Aurora. “I thought, ‘Why not give it a shot as it pertains to our industry to see what I could do to help?’ So, I got myself involved in Colorado advocacy efforts, on a small scale, just dipping my toes in the water.”

Now, it’s more like an immersion. Horgan, meanwhile, had more than a hunch that after his suggestion Savage would be going places. “There’s ways to separate yourself in the industry and opportunities that exist, including taking risks,” Horgan says. “I’m super happy for him, and he showed how powerful your voice can be.”

Mitch Savage with children during a field trip
Mitch Savage teaching students at a Colorado Golf Association Golf in Schools field trip how to cut a putting green cup. Photos courtesy of EJ Carr

Putting a (nick)name to a face

None of what Savage is achieving for his state and his industry would stun Don Parker.

As a personality who does whatever he can to bring sides together for what he views as the common good in his profession, Savage was given a nickname by Parker at the cul-de-sac where they lived in North Branch: “Governor.” Savage says, “I would listen, be a peacemaker. For whatever reason, I guess he saw something in me.”

Dave Phipps saw it. Phipps, GCSAA’s Northwest field staff representative, was among the first who Savage approached to discuss the significance of taking part in chapter government affairs-related activities. It didn’t take long for Phipps to identify Savage’s qualities once he engaged with advocacy. “He would have a plan, a written-down plan. He knew what he wanted to do, stands up for what he feels is right for the industry,” Phipps says. “He and his fellow superintendents in Colorado have grabbed the torch and done a lot of great work.”

The unity drives Savage. “Whether it’s a town forum or at the capitol, it’s all about being exposed to things that really impact our industry and our profession and also outside of it,” he says. “I got involved with our chapter, got to work with our lobbyists. I kind of went all-in. I’ve kind of become our de facto golf guy. I’ve kind of become the golf (legislation) ‘leg guy.’ We built a solid group of superintendents to go to the (state) capitol, get involved when we need to, testify at committee hearings. It’s an honor my peers and colleagues have put that on me. It’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly.”

Perhaps as much now as ever.

Current events

The calendar may have changed to 2024. For Savage and others who think alike, though, one ongoing topic has them particularly on guard: pesticides.

Along with the Colorado Golf Coalition, Savage has been among those who are steadfast in urging the maintenance of uniform statewide pesticide regulations in the Centennial State. In the last several years, a steady movement has strived to roll back state regulations for pesticides. Colorado is among more than 40 states that have preemption laws that pertain to pesticides, and those who stand by Savage want to keep it that way. In 2023, the battle over Colorado state regulations regarding pesticides was addressed in front of the state Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. The committee unanimously approved a senate bill to extend Colorado’s pesticide applicators act for 11 more years.

Still, Savage expects future challenges. If things change sooner than anticipated, and preemption goes away, it might result in a free-for-all, and every town and county in Colorado could implement its own regulations. If that happens, Savage may end up in a unique position. CommonGround GC crosses two municipality boundaries (the cities of Denver and Aurora), thus multiple political jurisdictions. If the city of Denver were allowed to decide to implement its own pesticide regulations and Aurora decides on something different, Savage would have to manage his golf course in two different ways, meaning he might need to treat one side of the course with pesticides and one side of the course without. The potential is there if the regulations change.

“We find ourselves right in the middle of another bill that was introduced this legislative session (in 2024) that is going after the same thing, so we’ve been finding ourselves at the capitol for testimony,” says Savage, who is among those supporting the pesticide applicators act last year because it maintained good policy and extended it. “We feel statewide regulations and preemption always are what is best for us and other pesticide applicators in the state. For us, it’s more about trying to educate lawmakers and say, ‘Hey, this is good, and it’s working. Don’t change it.’”

Mitch Savage and the CommonGround grounds crew
Some of Savage’s crew at CommonGround, from left, assistant superintendent Clinton Edger, irrigation foreman Francisco Guerrero, equipment manager Omar Lozano and Savage.

Savage hasn’t done it all alone. The support he has from other superintendents is critical. As for Jennifer Cassell, it’s vital. In her position as partner at Bowditch & Cassell Public Affairs in government relations, Cassell advocates on behalf of economic development, insurance, education, local government and agriculture interests to the Colorado General Assembly. Savage says he is in sync with Cassell in their efforts, and they are ready to roll when it’s time to step onto the big stage and address lawmakers.

“She’s taken me under her wing and helps us lead the charge. I’ve kind of helped educate her on what superintendents and we in this profession need, and she teaches me about the way the world works inside the walls of the state capitol. We’ve been able to look out for our members, i.e., the Rocky Mountain GCSA, and members of the golf coalition,” Savage says. 

A former golfer for the University of Kansas, Cassell says, “Mitch is very dedicated to his job, golf and the industry as a whole. I think he sees the big picture, can take a step back, evaluate, and see how something will help in five or 10 years.”

His passion remains a constant — a welcome characteristic from somebody who monitors all things in government affairs that impact this industry. “He answers the phone when you call. He wants to be engaged. He wants to do everything he can,” says Michael Lee, GCAA’s senior manager for government affairs. “He doesn’t hesitate to reach out. He always says he wants to learn, always appreciates from learning and getting better at something.”

Same old Mitch

Besides the daily doings at CommonGround GC, Savage makes time to showcase the facility and its environmental stewardship.

Last August, more than four dozen state and federal pesticide compliance officers spent three hours there for a field trip organized by Colorado State University faculty member Lisa Blecker, who hosts Pesticide Regulatory Education Program compliance and enforcement management courses for pesticide regulators. Others have taken Savage’s lead in Colorado. Among them is Paul Sibley, a GCSAA Class A superintendent at Walnut Creek Golf Preserve in Westminster, Colo., and 21-year association member. “It (being in the mix in government affairs) wasn’t my cup of tea,” says Sibley, who at the urging of those such as Savage decided to step forward to be active and has testified to lawmakers on behalf of the cause, including his facility and the importance and benefits of Walnut Creek’s Audubon Certified Signature Sanctuary status. “Some superintendents kind of keep to ourselves. I realized if we’re not there (speaking to top lawmakers), saying something, things never would happen. Mitch is a pretty staunch leader for the entire membership. He’s a humble guy, but he’s the one who spearheaded this.”

In no way is Savage ready to relinquish his role of representing his facility, his chapter, his state. And this is no time to measure his legacy — not while work still needs to be done to preserve all that he defends and believes.

“I want to look out for our members, build and maintain those relationships with our members and build and maintain a great reputation in the state capitol,” says Savage, who with wife Missy is parent to Max and Bella. “Really, the seed for this was planted before I was heavily involved in advocacy efforts. Over the years, our superintendents in our association have become more involved. Not because anything I’m doing, but it’s neat to see. I have the privilege to work alongside these superintendents and take what they created a decade ago and run with it. I love Colorado. I feel we’ve made huge strides here.”

Obviously, others saw this coming a long time ago. Like his neighbor, Mr. Parker. And Mike McDougall, the superintendent at the nine-hole course in North Branch. “He was polite. Could communicate with people, type of person you want as your son,” McDougall says. “I remember the time a hose broke. I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off. Mitch? He was just calm, the kind of person you want on your team. He just seemed like somebody uniquely positioned to advance.”

Howard Richman ( is GCM’s associate editor.